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Sermon: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Lent Midweek 4 – March 18, 2020 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel

On non-communion Sundays we regularly confess together our Christian faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. And one of the lines in that creed that we almost take for granted is that Jesus “descended into hell.” If you had to explain what it means that Jesus descended into hell, what would you say? You might have some trouble coming up with what it actually means.

You would be in good company. Many Christians, including wise and well-studied theologians, have struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ descent into hell. There are some versions of the Apostles’ Creed that don’t include the phrase that Jesus descended into hell which would seem to indicate there was some disagreement on the doctrine of the descent into hell very early in the Christian Church. We might note too that the Nicene Creed does not include the statement that Jesus descended into hell. But the Apostles’ Creed originated very early in the New Testament Christian Church indicating that most Christians from the very beginning believed in and taught Jesus’ descent into hell.

But what did they believe and teach about Jesus’ descent into hell? In our Lutheran Confessions there’s one short article about the descent into hell in the Formula of Concord, but if you go there for a good explanation of what Lutheran theologians believed about Jesus’ descent into hell, you’ll be disappointed. The writer simply says that we’ll have to wait for life in the next world to fully understand this mysterious doctrine.

Another reason for a limited understanding of Jesus’ descent into hell is that there’s really only one verse in the Bible that mentions it and then in words that are a little difficult to explain. Those words happen to be in our reading tonight from Peter’s 1st Letter. So tonight we will consider that


Last Wednesday in our Lenten devotion Peter wrote about suffering for doing good. He said that “it is better, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” And now in our reading tonight he says that the reason it’s better to suffer for doing good is because Jesus himself, the holy Son of God, suffered for doing good. He writes, “Christ also suffered once for sins in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Don’t miss that Peter gives us in one verse a theologically super-abundant statement of what Jesus came into the world to do for us. Jesus suffered once on the cross for our sins, in our place, as our Substitute. He was righteous and holy. We were unrighteous, unholy, and sinful. The reason he suffered for us was to atone for our sins so that we could be at peace with God, come into his presence to worship him, and spend eternity in heaven with him.

Peter has a whole sermon in just that one verse, but he writes more, much more: “[Jesus] was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit, in which he also went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison.” Peter is making a distinction between what we sometimes refer to as Jesus’ state of humiliation and his state of exaltation. Jesus’ state of humiliation is that portion of his existence in which he stepped down from the glory of heaven, was born in this world, and suffered and died. During that time he did not always make use of his divine powers as God, although he remained God all the time. In the Apostles’ Creed we say that he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”

Jesus’ state of exaltation began with his resurrection from the dead. At that point he once again made full use of all his divine power as God both as God and Man. Even his human nature now was able to make full use of those divine powers. That’s why after his resurrection Jesus’ body could appear and disappear. He could ascend into heaven and hold all power and authority in heaven and earth. His body and blood can be present wherever Holy Communion is celebrated by Christians. In the Apostles’ Creed we say that “he descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

Therefore Peter writes that Jesus “was put to death in flesh” (his state of humiliation) and “made alive in spirit” (his state of exaltation). And note that Peter writes that Jesus was made alive in spirit “in which he also went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison.” After Jesus rose bodily from the dead he descended body and soul into hell. We know it’s hell that he descended to because Peter makes reference to the spirits who had disobeyed in the days of Noah. The people of Noah’s day who refused to listen to Noah’s message of repentance went to hell when they died in the flood. Their spirits, their souls, went to hell. The “spirits in prison” would also refer to all people from every generation of history who went to hell along with the devil and all his angels.

So what announcement did Jesus have to proclaim or preach to the spirits in hell? It wasn’t a message of forgiveness and salvation. Their opportunity for God’s salvation had passed. We get the answer to this question from another passage of scripture which seems to also make reference to Jesus’ descent into hell. Colossians 3:15: “After disarming the rulers and authorities [that is, Satan and his angels], [God] made a public display of them by triumphing over them in Christ.” Like a triumphant general who marches into a conquered city, Jesus marched right into hell, body and soul, and declared to Satan, Satan’s angels, and all those who had rejected God and his Son, “I have conquered you. I crushed your head Satan, you old serpent. I have risen from the dead and have conquered sin, death, and hell itself.”

Jesus did not descend into hell to suffer for our sins. He had already done that on the cross. The atonement for our sins was indeed finished when Jesus died. But now he had risen from the dead and went right into hell to declare his victory. That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for you and me. Jesus is our Savior and Conqueror who marched down Main Street in hell, pointed his finger in Satan’s face and said, “I have conquered you and death and hell. It is finished, and you, Satan, are finished too.”

Peter had made reference to the spirits in hell who had disobeyed in the days of Noah when the ark was being built. Peter continues with that imagery of Noah’s ark to remind us that through baptism Jesus’ great victory over Satan becomes our victory. He writes, “In this ark a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. And corresponding to that, baptism now save you – not the removal of dirt from the body but the guarantee of a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

This is Peter’s point: The water of the flood actually saved Noah and his family by raising them up safely in the ark above all the death and destruction below. Just as that water physically saved Noah and his family, so the water of baptism saves us, spiritually saves us, with the forgiveness of our sins, by washing away our sins. The water of baptism doesn’t physically wash dirt from our bodies. It washes our guilty conscience and frees us from the condemnation of sin. And the resurrection of Jesus, and, we might add, Jesus’ triumphant descent into hell are the evidence that our sins are forgiven and that death and hell have been conquered.

Having accomplished his mission, having declared his victory over the devil, Jesus is once again glorified in heaven. Peter writes about the last portion of Jesus’ state of exaltation: “He went to heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” And we might add, “From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” And that state of exaltation all began when Jesus rose from the dead and “went and made an announcement, [an announcement of victory] to the spirits in prison.” Amen.